Disclaimer: This article offers insight solely into the Italian Republic. For further information on “getting the boot,” please refer to your significant other.
(If single, Urban Dictionary is usually pretty handy.)
Based on my extensive 2 weeks, 18 hours, 26 minutes, and 17 seconds spent in Italy (a number entirely made up save for the two weeks), I deemed myself worthy to create a comprehensive guide to understanding all the ins and outs of the boot-shaped country known as Italy, former center of the mighty Roman empire, birthplace of our favourite Saturday-night comfort food, and a source of constant inspiration to us all through highly-accurate media depictions of Italian gang culture. In my intense crash course of Italian culture, which included airport pat-downs and jumping over locked gates, I picked up a thing or two about what one should expect from the country responsible for giving us nuclear reactors.
- Sign language is essential, but volume doesn’t hurt.
This stereotype happens to be true, which is really quite convenient when one’s entire Italian vocabulary consists of the word “bella.” Because while the word “pretty” might be good for making friends it isn’t very useful for finding a restroom.
Within the first few hours of our arrival, my two friends and I had already found ourselves spectators to a sitcom-worthy exchange between two Italians at a ticket booth. Hands were in the air, tensions were high, and we were probably the only people in the room of 30 or so who didn’t try to get involved in some way.
I especially loved watching Italians having phone conversations. For one thing they answer the phone with “Pronto,” but don’t let that fool you. They take their jolly good time talking, oftentimes with hands still flying and the volume at max. Apparently Italians use an average of 250 hand gestures per day, so if you have working hands, communication shouldn’t be much of an issue.
- Italians tell time a little differently. If you’re looking for a vacation where everything plays out exactly according to plan, where wait time is minimal, and you know exactly what you’re doing at every minute, then go to Germany. I had been in the country for less than 24 hours, and my first encounter with the public transportation system was a full-fledged railway strike, which apparently is quite frequent there. When not on strike, however, TrenItalia is a highly-efficient way of travelling within the country. Be prepared for delays, but always be on time. Speaking from
- Prepare to feel like a hobo.
That’s right, folks, Italians have a great sense of style. Like, all the time. It’s not that they never go casual, but their definition of “casual” kind of puts North America to shame, especially when it comes to shoes. Exhibit A:
- Pack antacids.
Pizza. Pasta. Home of Nutella.I feel like that’s really all the explanation I need, but perhaps a small anecdote will reinforce the point. Upon arriving at my friend’s house in Northern Italy, we were instantly greeted with cake, homemade jam, fruit, and tea. That was almost enough for a meal in of itself. Only several hours later, we were treated to homemade Italian pasta and several other small courses. The following day we made pizza (I don’t even know how many there were in total), were presented with two more cakes, and I’m almost certain that there were at least four more courses involved. I have never in my life been so close to exploding. It was bliss.
- This is an artist’s paradise.
One of the friends I travelled with is an art student, and she absolutely fell in love with Italy’s art, especially in Florence. Unfortunately, we were moving so quickly through each city that we really only got a small taste of what each has to offer, but even a quick glance will tell you that there are centuries’ worth of art to discover.Florence (Firenze as the Italians say, quite useful to know when trying to purchase train tickets online) is considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and was home to the famous Michelangelo. His original David statue resides in the city and there are several other impressive replicas scattered throughout. At the Vatican Museum, visitors can find the renowned The Creation of Adam painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, along with some rather interesting characters being welcomed to hell; apparently one of them is the pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the wall.
A warning, though: If you intend to visit as many masterpieces as possible while in Italy, it will cost you and you are not guaranteed to get a very good view of the piece either. Tourism is quite heavy all-year round; some 25,000 people visit the Sistine Chapel each day. While it was incredibly beautiful, it was hard to enjoy. Visitors are herded from room to room much like cattle, and I’d say it was just about as comfortable. If you plan to visit, make sure to get there as early as possible to miss the lines.
What the Sistine Chapel really looks like inside.
Of course, there is plenty of art that doesn’t require 16 Euros to look at. There are some incredible street artists who make their livelihood by attracting crowds with their unique methods of production.
In Florence, I was thoroughly impressed by the local boutiques, which sold everything from marble paper to Pinocchio puppets. Not necessarily cheap either, but appropriate for the family back home and generally of better quality than most tourist trinkets.
- The ruins aren’t overrated.
I’m a history nerd, but I’d heard so much about Rome and Pompeii that I figured it wouldn’t live up to the hype. I was pleasantly surprised. For only 12 Euros, you have two-day access to the Colosseum and the surrounding ruins called Palentine Hill. The Colosseum, though very crowded, was magnificent. It’s located in the middle of the city, surrounded by apartment complexes, and I must say it was quite impressive walking out of a crowded, dark, and filthy metro station to find myself standing in its looming shadow. As for Palentine Hill, it was icing on the cake and a wonderful contrast to the rest of the modern city.
Yet in lieu of Rome, Pompeii was my personal favourite. I could have spent days wandering its chariot-rutted roads, exploring mansions of the upper-class and the quarters of slaves, admiring cracking mosaics, and marvelling over the body casts of Pompeii’s residents, their heads forever resting on their hands in peaceful slumber.
Beyond the Romans, there are plenty of other amazing historical sites that are relatively unknown to tourists as well as Italians. In northern Italy I stayed with a pen pal in a small town of approximately 6,000. She gave my friends and me a tour, and it was shocking to find a giant castle in the town’s center. Not only that, but this town had been at the center of massive crossfire between Allied and German forces for 17 days in WWII. Much of the town was destroyed, but somehow the castle escaped without irreparable damage.
While visiting my second pen pal in southern Italy, she brought me to a small UNESCO-protected village called Alberobello (literally “beautiful tree”). It is unique because of its “trulli,” temporary houses built with conical-shaped, stone roofs. The inhabitants of the area were getting rather sick of being taxed by foreign royalty, so when the tax collectors arrived at their doorstep they made sure that no one was home. How? They took their houses apart so that literally was no one home.
- Pizza and gangsters are better in the South.
Italy has its own “North-South” rivalry, and the culture is really quite different. Stereotypically, southerners are lazy and loud while northerners are cold-hearted and uncultured. Italy’s fashion centre is located in the North, while Naples, where pizza is believed to have originated, and the infamous Sicilian mafia are located in the South. In fact, each part of Italy is incredibly unique with its own dialect and customs. Italian as a language only became standardized about 100 years ago, and even today, an Italian travelling within Italy may not understand their fellow countrymen. Venice is on of the best examples of this difference. Until 1797, it was its own Republic and a might trading empire at that. Many Venetians are still fiercely nationalistic; they sport their own flag, speak their own language, and have for many years been attempting to succeed from Italy. The last referendum held was in just 2014.
Italians are some of the most hospitable people you will ever meet.
In the North or in the South, it made no difference to me. Italians are some of the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever met, and for that my two weeks in Italy made up some of my best memories in Europe. On my first day, when the trains weren’t running and I had no way to contact the friend I was staying with, perfect strangers were there to help me every step of the way. One woman made sure we got on the right train, and another let me borrow her phone, then waited until my friend showed up. As for the two pen pals I stayed with, I’d never met them before, but they and their families absolutely opened up their homes (and kitchens!) to me and my two friends. Their hospitality moved me beyond words. It also gave me a little indigestion. But the good kind.
More pictures of Italy can be found here.